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Obsessed: Should a Computer Hacker with Asperger Syndrome Go to Prison?

When human rights activist Terry Waite spoke recently in support of Gary McKinnon, the noted Pentagon hacker, it made quite a stir. Waite is a former Beirut hostage, imprisoned for four years in Lebanon in the 1980s. Waite told the press that the U.S. should thank McKinnon for “exposing the fragility” of the Pentagon’s computer system.

Waite does not condone McKinnon’s illegal Internet activity. However, he does believe that McKinnon should not be held to the same standards as other international criminals because he suffers from the developmental disorder Asperger Syndrome. Other celebrities and legal experts also have announced their backing of McKinnon, but Waite’s statements have more emotional appeal, considering the personal trauma he endured as a hostage.

Should McKinnon, a UK citizen, be extradited to the U.S. to stand trial for his crimes against the American government? If so, should the U.S. government consider his diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome a mitigating factor? I am not a legal expert and certainly not a celebrity. I am an American psychologist who treats individuals and families with Asperger Syndrome. The fate of Gary McKinnon could change the way Asperger Syndrome is treated all over the world. I for one am not sure anyone fully grasps the depth of the problems when a mental disorder becomes a political issue. Gary McKinnon is just one man fighting for his freedom, but in the process thousands of people with Asperger Syndrome and their families will be judged.

Eminent Psychologist Says Hacker Has a Disability

Asperger Syndrome is not a mental illness per se, but a developmental disorder on the Autism Spectrum. In fact McKinnon was diagnosed by Cambridge Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, a well-known expert on adult Asperger Syndrome. Along with Terry Waite, Baron-Cohen believes that McKinnon should not be treated as an ordinary criminal but as someone with a disability.

According to Professor Baron-Cohen, McKinnon is obsessed with finding the truth, which is why he penetrated the NASA and U.S. military computer systems in search of information on extraterrestrials. McKinnon believed that information on UFO technology was being suppressed by the U.S. government. Furthermore, he claims to have found proof.

This obsession with the truth is taken to an extreme by those with Asperger Syndrome because they have a characteristic called “mind blindness,” according to Baron-Cohen. “Mind blindness” is a complex theory, but in a nutshell McKinnon’s “mind blindness” prevented him from fully understanding the social consequences of his actions, in spite of his obvious intellectual giftedness.

Is McKinnon a cyber-terrorist?

So who did Gary McKinnon hurt by his actions? There are some estimates that it cost the U.S. government $700,000 to track him down, not to mention the hundreds of thousands being spent to litigate the case. Certainly he embarrassed NASA and the Pentagon by using simple hacker tools, including a dial-up modem and software that generates passwords. But are there other injuries? I can only imagine that others followed Mr. McKinnon through the portals he created. In fact, he openly admits to watching other hackers at work during his “research.” Were these others just as obsessed with the truth as McKinnon, or did they have other motives? Not everyone hacking into the Pentagon computers is interested in extraterrestrials. There are undoubtedly many innocent lives at stake as a result of this type of cyber-crime.

Cyber-crime is a new frontier that is baffling local policing authorities, not just the CIA and FBI. I have had a personal experience with this phenomenon that is more than unnerving. I received a string of anonymous and threatening emails over a two-year span from a stalker who claimed he wanted to expose the truth too (just like Gary McKinnon). He said he was watching me, had been to my house, determined that my daughter was a “retard,” and that we both deserved to be driven from the community . . . because he considered me a “liar” and a “roach.” Needless to say I was frightened and sought protection from the local police for myself and my family.

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I don’t know if my personal stalker has Asperger Syndrome. When he was finally tracked down and identified he admitted that he was angry with me for prevailing in a lawsuit his grandmother had filed against me. He told the police that his actions were perfectly justified, which sounds pretty obsessed to me. The city prosecutor was not impressed by the stalker’s logic and determined that he was guilty of cyber-stalking and sentenced him to a year of diversion, fines and anger management therapy.

Is Gary McKinnon’s hacking somehow less dangerous than my private stalker? My stalker was certainly obsessed with me (and is still on a mission to prove the “truth”), so does that mean if a person is obsessed they are disabled and shouldn’t be tried for the crime? Dr. Baron-Cohen suggests leniency since McKinnon is “disabled.” Terry Waite suggests that the end justifies the means since McKinnon’s hacking exposed the frailty of U.S. security. With this logic I suppose this means that some stalking is OK and other stalking is not, but who decides — the stalker?

Obsessed: Should a Computer Hacker with Asperger Syndrome Go to Prison?

Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D.

Licensed psychologist Kathy Marshack, Ph.D. has worked as a marriage and family therapist for 34 years. Asperger Syndrome is one of her specialties, and she has counseled hundreds of couples, families and individuals who are on the Spectrum. She has authored three books and has been interviewed in The New York Times, Inc. Magazine, USA Today, CNN, the Lifetime TV channel and NPR. She practices in Portland, Oregon. To learn more visit or download a free chapter of her new book, “Out of Mind – Out of Sight: Parenting with a Partner with Asperger Syndrome,” at

APA Reference
Marshack, K. (2018). Obsessed: Should a Computer Hacker with Asperger Syndrome Go to Prison?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 12, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.